When children take up sports or musical instruments, what is required of them to become supremely talented? With natural ability, long hours of practice and extraordinary dedication, a lucky few become virtuoso musicians or championship athletes, years later.
But that regimen often entails tremendous sacrifice — forfeiting a natural part of childhood. That child’s life experiences will include isolation, pressure, and being viewed as “different.” Sometimes, the unfortunate byproduct is dysfunctional adulthood.
Submitted for consideration, Tiger Woods. Yesterday, the world’s greatest golfer, millions in endorsements, hero to poor minority children and Corporate America alike. Ultra-cool, a gorgeous wife and beautiful children.
Today, a life in disarray. He will take “an indefinite break from professional golf.” His corporate partners, who knew, or should have known, of his indiscretions, watch cravenly from afar, most of them backpedaling from their erstwhile meal ticket.
The reason? A married man in his 30s, Woods behaved like an indulged teenager. He courted danger with multiple episodes of marital infidelity, unconcerned about the consequences for his family or his meticulously crafted image.
Years ago, one of America’s greatest card magicians, John Scarne, wrote about being a child prodigy and the attendant difficulties. As a teenager, his card tricks baffled professional gamblers and top magicians, including Houdini. (In the film “The Sting,” those are Scarne’s hands doing Paul Newman’s crooked card dealing.)
As a young man, Scarne described meeting Ignacy Paderewski, the renowned Polish pianist and composer. After being introduced, the great musician asked Scarne to perform. Scarne amazed Paderewski and his entourage with card flourishes and vanishes when a woman remarked, “You certainly must have practiced years to develop that skill.”
Paderewski, once a child prodigy himself, remarked, “My dear lady, to achieve unusual skill in any profession or art one must endure a great deal of personal sacrifice, and from what I have seen this young man accomplish with playing cards, I am sure he has forfeited many boyhood pleasures to become so skilled.”
Scarne wrote, “How right Paderewskiwas about practicing and me. I was 21 at the time, and most of my youth had been spent with older men, working and practicing. The only pleasure I’d really enjoyed was in doing tricks for people. The rewards would be their bewildered expressions and encouraging remarks, usually something like this, ‘Johnny, you should be on stage doing those tricks. You’re much better than the professional magicians.’ ”
Tennis great Andre Agassi recently published “Open,” his autobiography, the story of arrested adolescence and success as a celebrity athlete. His father forced young Andre to practice tennis for hours daily, at the expense of a normal life. Everything else was a distraction. “I took over my dad’s rant and just figured this was my life. What else was I to do? It didn’t cross my mind that I had to like it. I felt like I was in a hamster wheel. I was tortured. I lived in fear, in confusion.” Agassi dropped out of high school, turning pro at 16. He hated tennis but had no alternative.
A world class player, Agassi won eight Grand Slam titles and millions of dollars. Privately he was an isolated, tortured soul, drinking excessively, using drugs, married briefly (and disastrously) to Brooke Shields. To relieve boredom he set fires in his hotel room. His tennis game deteriorated and his Davis Cup coach accused him of losing deliberately.
Agassi’s story is reminiscent of another tennis prodigy, perhaps the greatest tennis player from Chicago, Andrea Jaeger. Like Agassi, she spent her childhood playing tennis exclusively. The world’s number two player as a teenager, she found scant comfort in her success. Following an argument with her father, she claims she tanked the Wimbledon final against Martina Navratilova, the tennis equivalent of throwing the Super Bowl. She quit tennis at 19.
Take note, Tiger Woods, redemption is possible. Today, Agassi is happily married to Steffi Graf. He started a charitable foundation educating poor children and refuses to pressure his children into tennis. Jaeger became an Anglican Dominican nun, and operates a charity for children with cancer.
The headlines around Woods will eventually disappear. But the damage to his family, and betrayal of their trust, will not. He admits he must be “a better husband, father and person.” Nobody has ever conquered the world’s most demanding golf courses like Woods has. But no sand trap will be as difficult as his next challenge — learning self-discipline and learning about himself, lessons perhaps unlearned earlier in life.
In this regard, Woods might consider referring to his Thai roots: 2,500 years ago, Buddha imparted valuable wisdom. Of self-knowledge and self-discipline he said, “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”
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